Hidden History: the Founding Fathers and their horrid personal finances

Mon Oct 01, 2018

During times such as today of rampant political polarization and increasing disapproval over our elected officials, there are those who find themselves reminiscing over the days of politics past. Some people may find themselves missing the last administration and lamenting the loss of better, happier times. Still others may choose to go even further beyond by diving into their history books and finding greater resonance with administrations long gone.

For instance, many may find themselves holding a lot of the same values as the Founding Fathers of the U.S. - the cadre of political leaders who led the original 13 colonies of the U.S. into declaring independence from Great Britain and eventually forming the fully independent entity that we all call home. Certainly, from their portrayals in the history books (and not considering their status as slave-owning societal elites who only viewed similar, white elites as worthy of representation), the Founding Fathers personify a lot of values that modern Americans idolize: daringness to declare independence, fervent belief in liberty, representative democracy, and a willingness to fight for their beliefs.

However, as this week’s Hidden History will show, the Founding Fathers also exemplify another trait that many modern Americans can relate to: very lackluster personal finances.

Starting with the most ubiquitous name among the Founding Fathers, George Washington is revered by many (and rightfully so) for leading the Continental Army in the American Revolution against the armies of Great Britain and then stepping in as the first president of the U.S., setting many of the traditions for the position that hold up today. ­Did Washington step into this position out of his patriotic spirit? Perhaps. However, other historical suggestions seem to paint an interpretation that after his estate being raided by the British, losing half his net worth during the duration of the war, and the Continental currency he received for his war contributions being deemed valueless in the eyes of the new government (having depreciated by about 9,000% since 1776), Washington may have chosen to take the highest paying job in the land as a means of solving his own personal problems.

In a more direct example, the author of the Declaration of Independence and third president, Thomas Jefferson, was also not particularly frugal or savvy with his own finances. Reportedly, Jefferson would spend the modern equivalent of $800 per day on groceries while in the White House, with most of that being wine. He also made constant renovations to his beloved home, Monticello (taking 54 years before finally declaring the estate finished), purchased books en masse on credit, and even lent scrupulous loans to farmers and other close friends, oftentimes being paid back in the valueless Continental currency.

A name that has caught much traction in recent years, Alexander Hamilton, may have always been willing to speak his mind, but even he shied away from frugality in his political life, despite the “rags-to-riches” story that has given him much recognition among modern audiences. The founder of the U.S. national finance system, Hamilton was, at one time, the recipient of a particularly stinging note from the Bank of New York (which Hamilton had a hand in creating) reminded him of his account’s overdraft - to the sum of about $5,300 in modern currency.

So perhaps in longing for the leaders of eras past, we oftentimes will find that their situations, both personal and political, are not too vastly different from the ones we face today. Still, maybe this should be seen as more of a comfort than detriment: the same problems we see in modern politics aren’t emblematic of social regression but instead are just universal elements that make us all human. Washington took a job he wasn’t particularly keen on because of the attractive paycheck. Jefferson was a bit too guilty of self-prescribed retail therapy on a regular basis. Hamilton was not above his obligations to the systems he created. We in the modern day can at least relate to the history that surrounds us and realize that our problems are ones that have been overcome before and can be overcome again.




Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons



Appears in
2018 - Fall - Issue 5